The number of unmarried couples living together has risen dramatically since the 1990s, with the greatest increase among those without a college degree, according to a new Pew Research Center study analyzing recent Census Bureau data.
In 2009, 58 percent of those aged 30-44 were married while 7 percent were living with their partner but not married. Thirty-five percent were neither married nor a cohabitant. The rate of cohabitation for this age group has doubled since 1995 when it was 3 percent. The study, authored by Richard Fry and D'Vera Cohn, also noted that rates of cohabitation before marriage have risen sharply. In 2010, 58 percent of all women aged 19-44 had lived with a partner outside of marriage, up from 33 percent in 1987.
The increased rate of cohabitation came mostly from those with lower levels of education, however. Cohabitation was twice as high among those without a college degree (8 percent) than among college graduates (4 percent).
Cohabitation also showed opposite effects on the income levels of non-college graduates versus college graduates. Among those without a college degree, cohabitating couples had less income on average ($46,540) than married couples ($56,800). Among those with a college degree, however, cohabitating couples had more income on average ($106,400) than married couples ($101,160), though the difference is not as great as for those without a college degree.
“The presence of children detracts from economic well-being because children require time and care; they likely lead to a reduction in hours devoted to paid work on the part of the parent or the partner of the parent,” Fry and Cohn write. The study concludes, therefore, that the income differences found between less educated cohabitating couples versus married couples, as opposed to those differences among college educated couples, can be explained by the presence of children.
Among the college-educated, married couples are much more likely to have children in the home (81 percent) than cohabitating couples (33 percent). Among couples without a college degree, however, a large portion of cohabiters (67 percent) have children. By comparison, 85 percent of married adults without a college degree have children.
Therefore, concludes the study, the fact that, among the less educated, cohabitating couples have lower levels of income than married couples can be explained by the fact that two-thirds of less educated cohabiters have children and, “children tend to reduce measured economic well-being.”
The study notes that, “a voluminous body of social science research shows that marriage is associated with a variety of benefits for adults.” A declining number of those without a college degree and with lower levels of income are taking advantage of those benefits, however.
Peter Sprigg, senior fellow for Policy Studies at the Family Research Council, made note of this in an email to The Christian Post: “The decline of marriage is having its worst effect on the people who can least afford it – those who are underprivileged in terms of education and income. The security of marriage is associated with economic as well as psychological benefits for the spouses, yet too many young people are forsaking those benefits for cohabitation instead.”
Sprigg also believes that the study points to an “irony” in the sexual revolution and Feminist Movement of the 1960s in that “the decline of the belief that sex should be confined to marriage has worked to the disadvantage of women (especially poor women), who are unable to hold out for the marital commitment that most of them truly desire.”
Dr. Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Convention's Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, said in an interview with The Christian Post that the study points to the importance of understanding the economic impact of child rearing. Land also believes the study presents a good argument for increasing the child and dependent care tax credit.
“For people who make a lot of money, it's no big deal,” said Land, but it has a greater impact on those with less income. Land suggests increasing the child and dependent care tax credit to $800, or even $1,000 per child.
Galen Carey, vice president of government afairs for the National Association of Evangelicals, agrees that there is a “societal interest” served by marriage and child rearing.
“Public policy should recognize that child rearing serves a public good,” Carey said, and there are a number of things the government can do to help parents, such as removing the marriage penalty in the tax code.
Carey also pointed out that while income is one way to measure well being, there are many other factors that contribute to one's well-being, such as “strong relationships” and “stable families,” and these are available to all income levels.
In a related story, the Census Bureau reported Wednesday that the number of children living with at least one grandparent has risen 64 percent since 1991. Land suspects this trend is related to an increase in children without fathers, as grandparents move in to help care for children. Fatherless homes are the “single greatest cause of poverty in this country,” said Land.
The Pew Research study did not include same-sex couples, but noted that same-sex couples have higher median income than opposite-sex cohabiters, married couples, and adults without partners, and were more likely to graduate from college (48 percent) than others in the study.